UMass Student Businesses Crunch More Than Granola

April 10, 2003

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AMHERST, Mass. - At the Earthfoods Cafe, a student-run business at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, customers can purchase a variety of vegetarian dishes, and then eat them with compostable utensils and plates. The cafe is one of eight student-run businesses at the University that all make enough money to cover their costs. At the same time, operating the businesses provides students with valuable hands-on experience far beyond what they learn in the classroom.

The choice of the compostable utensils and plates at Earthfoods was made for socially conscious reasons, Christina Calvaneso, a senior who serves as a consultant to the cafe is quick to point out. "They cost seven cents per utensil," Calvaneso says. "But we decided to spend the money so that they go right in with the compost." Soon, she says, if a supplier can be found that is closer, the cost per unit will go down. She says her experience with the student-run businesses has helped her land a job with a major corporation when she graduates.

The not-for-profit businesses employ 130 students and are run by cooperative principles of participatory management. They use consensus and are governed both by the rules of private enterprise and a sense of social consciousness. Day-to-day decisions fall to a network of committees. Policy manuals developed over the past three decades by previous groups of students guide each business.

Services offered by the businesses include the People''s Market, a whole foods grocery store, a bicycle co-op and TIX Unlimited, a ticket outlet for student events. In addition to the cafe, there''s also Campus Design and Copy, a student-run copy shop, and three snack shops located in residence halls open evenings.

All the businesses are overseen by the Center for Student Business, an agency of the Campus Activities Office, part of the division of Student Affairs. The enterprises receive advice from consultants - 10 undergraduates who have experience at the businesses, and one graduate student. The center was chosen as one of 10 exemplary programs by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators in 2001.

Christopher Olson, an MBA student who also serves as a consultant, says he''s often called on to provide financial advice to make sure each business is properly keeping its statements, and doing so in a timely manner. He also trains the student consultants and is a member of the center''s management team.

Over at the People''s Market, David Lambert says he and others who run the business also have a social consciousness when purchasing their products. "We support local businesses and buy organic foods from other cooperatives. All our coffees are fair-trade coffees," he says.

Consultant Christina Gandolfo says purchasing committees makes such decisions, and while deciding by committee is sometimes cumbersome, it''s the system

that has been used for decades. A key talent, however, for all of the businesses, is to constantly train new workers and managers because students cycle through every four years or so. "We always need to mold new leadership," she says.

Lambert, of the People''s Market, says managing by consensus is one of the ways the businesses make decisions, and sometimes it gets in the way because they rely too heavily on it. He also says consultants such as Gandolfo and Calvaneso are quick to point out that long meetings and inability to reach decisions cost the enterprise, because each member is getting paid for meeting time.

In fiscal 2002, the eight businesses generated total revenue of $738,602, and had a payroll of $241,870, with 142 jobs. The Earthfoods restaurant had 30 working members and generated $157,216, while the 28 members at the People''s Market generated $268,503 last year. Donna Vanasse, the office manager at the Center for Student Business, says it''s important to emphasize that seven of the eight businesses are not subsidized, and are self-sustaining concerns. Tix Unlimited and the Center for Student Business receive funding from the Student Activities Trust Fund, she says.

For information on the Center for Student Business, call 413/545-2167.